James Otto Biography
Last updated: 10/02/2009 12:00:00 PM
"There are a lot of people out there who think music isn't speaking to them anymore," says James Otto. "People who grew up on Bob Seger, James Taylor, The Allman Brothers Band or Hank Williams Jr. -- those are the artists I love, so I hope what I'm doing speaks to their audience."
His remedy comes in the form of a debut album brimming with straight-ahead passion -- a hard-driving, soulful project that reflects a lifetime of immersion in country and rock's most genuine music.
"This is not musical Prozac," says James with the same earnestness he brings to his music. "It's me passionately trying to get across a piece of myself, sharing some truth I've learned, trying to make you feel something. My objective was to make great music that moved me, and hopefully it will move other people."
James worked with producers Scott Parker and Mark Wright on his debut album. The record's musical passion is matched with a lyrical approach that James, who wrote half of the album's twelve songs, drew from his own life.
He wrote the album's first single, "Days Of Our Lives," with Bobby Terry. "We were talking about all of the events of the last couple of years," says James, "and about Bobby's wife, my girlfriend and our families. We thought, 'Everyday when you leave the house, it may possibly be the last time you see your loved ones.' We wanted to say something that was fresh and different from things you've heard before. Hopefully we accomplished that."
"'Misspent Youth' may be my favorite song I've written to date," he says. "It's so much about my life growing up, going through those teenage years drinking and smoking and racing cars with my friends. Sometimes I long to be 17 again, for the innocence that went with it. Those memories are some of the strongest."
James is not afraid to tackle tough subjects in his music. "Lowdown on the Highlife" came out of his paternal grandfather's alcohol-related death. "He was like something you'd hear in a Merle Haggard song," says James. "He was a great, talented guy and it was quite a waste. In this song, I just tried to be honest with everybody about a problem I know affects millions of people."
"Song Of The Violin" was a late addition to the record that James recently wrote for his maternal grandparents' 50th anniversary. "My mom had been asking me to write a song and I'd never really written a song for an event like this," says James. "It came as a gift to me on a Saturday night at home, just after a conversation with my mother. It just explores a love that gets better with time. It's a sentiment I think we all long for."
Such honest slices of real life shine throughout the album, whether the subject is heartbreak in "Never Say Goodbye," the battle for self-respect in the moody "Miss Temptation," or sexy devotion in "She Knows." James brings a remarkable depth and resonance to the dramatic tale of life gone right in "The Ball." "Gone!" is a vulnerable recognition of the loss of a relationship, sung with rapid-fire emotion.
The CD is fleshed out with flat-out rockers like "Long Way Down," "If It's The Last Thing I Do" and "Sunday Morning, Saturday Night."
James' musical odyssey began when he started singing at age four. He was born on the Ft. Louis Army Base in Washington State. "Everybody thinks of Seattle when they think of Washington state," says James, "but I'm from the high plains desert area. It's mostly orchards, ranches and vineyards. It's a very country area, and most of my friends were farmers. The town I lived in had about 3,000 people - and that's including all the farmers on the outskirts. It's a rural community."
The natural musician played violin briefly and spent five years playing saxophone, but what he really wanted was a guitar. When James went to live with his father at the age of 13, he got one.
"My father showed me G, C, and D," says James, "and the next day I was playing along with Van Halen. From that moment, it's been a hunger, wanting to be as good as I could be."
But Van Halen wasn't the only group James was drawn to - he also loved the country rock of Hank Williams, Jr. and Alabama, and the outlaw music of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
"When I heard those guys, I realized I could play country music with an edge and still be country," he says. "Country has a real honesty about its lyrics. I've always been really close to my family, and being able to talk about your life in music really appealed to me. That's what country music is all about."
In high school, James heard the rocking blues of blues of Travis Tritt and the Kentucky Headhunters, and the strapping football player decided right then he'd turn in his uniform and make music his focus.
"It made me really unpopular," says James of his decision to go from jock to country rocker. "But I didn't want to go to college to play ball. I literally spent 10 to 12 hours a day in my room playing guitar, even on school days. Everybody in my family believed in me. My dad always wanted me to pursue music - probably because my grades were so poor," says James, laughing. "God bless `em, as nerve wracking as that must have been, my family always supported me 100 percent."
After high school, James found work in the Northwest, and later joined the Navy for two years. He was following in the military footsteps of his grandfather and his father (an Airborne Ranger), who is still an Army drill sergeant. "The military really taught me a lot of valuable lessons about all the things we have that so many other countries do not have," says James. "It's an amazing blessing to be a U.S. citizen."
After his military duty, James started playing full-time in bands all over the Northwest. It was an honest living, but the singer/songwriter grew tired of playing cover songs and being background music in noisy bars. "I decided the best way for me to get anywhere was to move to Nashville," he says. "That was the biggest leap of faith thing I've done thus far. I sold everything I owned - my truck, all my gear. I just took one acoustic guitar."
When he arrived in Music City in 1998, James religiously attended every writer's night he could find. He was overwhelmed by the talented songwriters he heard. "You come from being what you think is pretty good for your area," he admits, "and then you come to Nashville and it's a reality check. But everybody else's greatness makes you pull yourself up and try to become one of those people you admire."
"Those writers shaped me," he adds. "By watching them, I figured out how they mesmerize a crowd with their words and the way they deliver a song. That changed me from being a club singer that does covers and tries to write on the weekend to someone who really strives to create their own art."
Eventually people started coming to see James at those writers' nights, and before long he met Scott Parker. The two went in the studio and began recording what would become James' Mercury Nashville debut.
A copy of the finished record found its way to James' labelmate, Shania Twain. The world-famous superstar liked what she heard and asked James to be her opening act on the U.S. leg of her 2003-2004 tour.
"I'm amazed that they thought of me for the job and that she likes the CD," says a bowled-over James. "She's heard my music! It's the opportunity of a lifetime to be in front of thousands of people. Shania is a real trend-setter. She never followed the rules -- she blazed a trail of her own and did her own thing."
"Hopefully the same people who find what she does attractive - the rock meets pop meets country - will be attracted to my same kind of mix," says James. And exactly how does James describe that mix? "It's the James Otto rockin' country-soul revue!" he says with a grin.